There are a few schools of thought about silence. Two in particular have raged in mind this past month: the one that views silence as a tool of oppression, a tacit consent of evil in all its great and little forms, and the one that regards silence as judicious–a mark of wisdom in a relentlessly prattling world. Lately, I’ve been struggling to strike a balance between the two, and though I still haven’t found my equilibrium, I feel it’s time I at least disclosed the fact that I’m struggling with this at all.
I discovered a few weeks ago that the sound of my own voice had become intolerable to me. It was a curious realization–and a difficult one, working three part-time jobs that all require me to be pleasantly conversant and even to hold forth with authority on certain subjects–and I responded by sharply curtailing other opportunities to speak, whether they be in-person social settings or through most social media. To be honest, I wish I’d been in a position to stop talking altogether for a while–to cut out into the woods for a bit, or go on one of those silence retreats–but like most people, I wasn’t in any financial position to take that kind of leave of absence from my life.
Even what little privacy for self-reflection I sought wasn’t always easy; on two occasions, when I told people plainly that I didn’t want to hear the sound of my own voice for a while, the follow-up was “I completely understand–hey, we should catch up over coffee soon.” So either I became reticent about sharing even basic information with acquaintances who ran into me, or I continued to perform in unavoidable group settings, and went home heavy-hearted about how much I hadn’t intended to say.
A few events occurring in short succession brought this strange state about, but at the crux of things was a changed personal response to the manic phase of bipolar ii. I’m still learning what it’s like to manage this condition, to be on medication that stabilizes the extreme lows and also, ostensibly, the expansive highs. My medication prompted a health scare a month back (it messes with one’s metabolism, and I started feeling nigh on comatose after even light, high protein meals), and I panicked and stopped taking it entirely for a little while. It was in this period that I hit what felt like a traditional manic high–which for me involves talking faster, more expansively, and with more emotional investment in everything than usual; feeling energized without much sleep or food; and believing I can take on a million projects at once–and I reacted with no small horror once I recognized the state for what it was.
In part, I was afraid that an extreme upswing meant another extreme downswing, so there was anger with myself for not being able to control things better. In larger part, though, there was a sudden, confused distrust of anything I said–of what impassioned beliefs were really mine, and what were simply symptoms of an elevated state. I wondered which of my opinions, in general, weren’t simply knee-jerk reactions to a variety of traumatic experiences–and, to my greatest horror, realized that, socially, the difference didn’t matter. Socially, I knew many people who still expected me to be “on” all the time; who took my every articulated opinion with the utmost seriousness; who even interpreted my silences as significant commentary in turn.
It was at this point that I sharply curtailed my social sphere. There was just too much noise, and I thought that perhaps if I simply listened to the world for a while instead, I’d come to a better sense of my own, deepest beliefs again. I’d be able to hear myself, over both the cacophony of social expectation and the frenetic clamour of my own emotional states.
And to an extent, this has worked, if indirectly: The writing I’ve done lately has been some of my clearest, and I’m inclined to say strongest. In that great battlefield of ideas, I’ve been holding myself accountable for certain behaviours and their consequences, and ultimately reminding myself why writing is so important to me in the first place. As Emily Bronte once wrote, “If I could I would always work in silence and obscurity, and let my efforts be known by their results.” Well and good in theory, but not only does the social nature of our species make this difficult, the other school of thought on silence also makes such wishful thinking a bit of a coward’s move.
Indeed, on one social media sphere I kept open, I could only marvel at how forthright and firm in their convictions so many other writers and artists remained. I’ve been that strident, certainly, but for the past month any strongly articulated view on my part has just made me unhappy–both because I’ve been questioning the provenance of all my opinions and because, as one close acquaintance put it, it’s entirely possible that the views I hold, even if arrived at coherently, through the perfectly grounded lens of personal experience and identity, are the wrong views to be articulating in the activist landscape that currently exists.
I reflected on this last especially on Women’s Day, when my Twitter feed was flooded with wonderful histories of under-acknowledged female persons who contributed greatly to our understanding of the universe–but also the usual bevy of “all women are X” posts that always make me cringe. Women are people–some honest, some not; some with great emotional quotients, some not; some compassionate, some indifferent; some nurturing, some abusive. I’ve never been comfortable with discourse that suggests something more unified and hivemind-esque about the gender construct (to which I only subscribe nominally–as a sexed body gendered “female” by society), but when I see this rhetoric paraded about, I do understand why it exists, and the ends it tries to serve in a world with so much persisting marginalization-by-gender. Thus I’ve come to realize I usually do more harm than good in pointing out the flaws in such rhetoric, even if they most certainly do exist.
Similarly, a real bee in my bonnet before I fell silent was the issue of trial-by-public-opinion rape accusations, particularly on university campuses. I’m a very rare case–someone both sexually assaulted in university and falsely accused of sexual assault in university. My experience on both sides of this fence, joined with the sadly non-zero number of times I’ve seen women threaten boyfriends to tell everyone they’d been abused if they didn’t get their way, has made me concerned about ensuring due process for everyone involved in any assault claim, and a strong advocate for restorative justice modelling in general. This is absolutely not to suggest that the majority of assault claims are fabricated, or to deny the extreme difficulty in prosecuting most assault charges to begin with; I’m simply uncomfortable with the idea of “reasonable cost”–whether it be for non-guilty persons on death row, or for individuals still publicly pilloried long after a given assault charge failed to result in conviction. But I do understand now that, in our culture, with the frustrating threat of lawsuits hanging over every institutional body attempting to mediate fairly on all parties’ behalf, my concern seems to do more harm, on whole, than good.
The list goes on, but the underlying issues remain constant: I have very little confidence in the foundation of many of my opinions these days, even less confidence in the social value of what opinions I have most prominently forwarded in the past, and an extreme exhaustion with the weight placed in many circles on what I say regardless. And yet, silence is not the response I wish to have to a world of relentless injustice; I want so much to be able to advocate for a better society in a way that makes sense and does no harm. If my writing this past month is any indication, this goal isn’t entirely beyond me, either–but only in fiction have I seen such clear results to date. I don’t know when, or how, the sound of my voice in other spheres will stop grating so much. I can only say that I’m still in process–as we all are, I suppose.
Best wishes to you, then, wherever the journey currently finds you all.